The DEA's New Groove


WASHINGTON, June 2, 2006 — -- The federal agency whose agents kick down doors and storm houses with guns drawn will soon pick up a new weapon to wage its war: candles.

At its headquarters in Virginia, the Drug Enforcement Administration, along with a number of drug awareness and prevention organizations, will host a vigil to remember young people who have lost their lives to illegal drug use.

The agency is promoting "A Vigil for Lost Promise," the first DEA event of its kind, with a Web site, that profiles eight young people who died from causes ranging from heroin to huffing.

"Our world is less rich because the flame of talent was extinguished long before its promise burned bright," the Web site reads. So, on June 8, the DEA and other groups plan for hundreds of tiny flames to be lit.

Politicians have caught on: The Senate passed a resolution by Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, officially making June 8 the day for a national vigil for lost promise.

The DEA is probably better known for busting big narcotics traffickers than for taking a tender, mournful remembrance of drug abusers.

"It's one of those little-known programs," says Catherine Harnett, chief of the DEA's demand reduction programs, a part of the agency that pays 40 salaries and has an operating budget of $760,000 that comes from the main DEA budget of $1.9 billion.

Harnett says the vigil will have a "modest cost." She says the idea for the event came about when Ginger Katz, an anti-drug activist since her 20-year-old son died of a heroin overdose in 1996, suggested it to DEA administrator Karen Tandy last summer.

Harnett says the vigil is an opportunity to put a human face on dire drug statistics. She characterizes demand reduction as the "kinder, gentler" side of the DEA.

Some people who oppose the more familiar tactics of the DEA -- pursuing and arresting drug traffickers -- are not impressed by the vigil.

"If it's a drug enforcement agency, why are they doing this kind of thing?" says Pete Guither, an Illinois University administrator who on the side writes a blog criticizing the war on drugs. He believes many of the problems associated with drug abuse stem simply from the fact that drugs are illegal.

Guither says he feels sorry for families who have lost members to drug abuse, and he would support the vigil if it weren't part of the DEA's "propaganda war."

Guither has put together a spoof site ( lamenting the loss of lives in drug raids and mocking the DEA's apparent sympathy.

Guither's site appears above the DEA's site when "Vigil for Lost Promise" is typed into Google. It looks just like the DEA's site, until phrases like "Our view is that the DEA, and the other prohibitionist groups who sponsor that site, are hypocrites, since they are, in fact, partially to blame in many drug deaths" appear.

Even some people within the DEA are uncomfortable with the idea of being kinder and gentler.

An official within the agency who is not permitted to comment publicly told ABC News the event is causing eye-rolling and foot-dragging at the office, even though everyone will get out of work two hours early to attend.

"This isn't what we do," the official says. "There's a carrot and a stick approach, and we're very much the stick."

In other words, spreading awareness is more for organizations like vigil co-sponsors Partnership for a Drug Free America and Drug Free Kids, and the DEA's job is simply to enforce the law -- and certainly not to eulogize drug users, and especially not if it's going to cost $30,000.

Ginger Katz, who suggested the vigil to an enthusiastic DEA administrator, believes otherwise: "The DEA is tired of doing the raids," Katz says. She sees an expanding role for drug awareness activities like the vigil in the DEA's future.

"This is the first of many," Katz says. "This vigil will grow every year."

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